The Last Day

May 19, 2011

The surprising thing about the final cycle of 24 is just how low-key it was.  Evidently no one felt a need to top what had come before.

Given the vastness of the global and personal carnage wrought over the preceding seven seasons, maybe they figured it couldn’t be done.  Season Eight doled out the expected 24 cliches as generously as Jack Bauer gives hugs.  No First Family conspiracies, no jeopardy subplot for danger-magnet daughter Kim, no nuclear detonations, no jumper cable-powered torture sessions, no ACLU straw-men to absorb the writers’ japes at civil liberties, no sunbaked San Fernando Valley chase scenes (the locale shifted to New York), no cameos by fan faves Jude Ciccolella (the scheming Palmer-era kingmaker) or Glenn Morshower (the loyal secret service agent), a suspiciously paltry body count (did the actors wise up and demand run-of-show contracts?), only one measly CTU mole (albeit a pretty good one), and the most meager roster yet of slumming A-list character actors phoning in perfs as escalating “Big Bads.”

(The biggest name this season was Jurgen Prochnow, who’s starting to resemble Jackie Cooper.)

I don’t know how it played for week-to-week viewers, but in multiple-episode marathons Season Eight became less of a roller-coaster thrill ride than a documentary on the mundane work of government operatives.  Not totally routinized in its final cool-down lap, 24 by 2012 might yet have mimicked a Frederick Wiseman vision of intelligence agency operations: one thousand minutes of bored operatives parked in cubicles, running the world on their glowing LCD screens.

The politics of 24 – its xenophobia, its torturephilia – have already been hashed out ad nauseum.  After a couple of years of left-baiting, so-what-if-we-are-terrormongers storylines, Season Eight was content to sidestep anything inflammatory.  Except that it revived, more idiotically than ever, an underremarked failure of earlier seasons – a retrograde fetish for cross-racial casting.  The ghost of Vito Scotti (you know, the Italian-American who played buck-toothed Japanese kamikazes on Gilligan’s Island) has visited 24 before.  In Season Four, familiar Latino character actors Tony Plana and Nestor Serrano mingled with actual Middle Easterners (including Emmy-nominated discovery Shohreh Aghdashloo, from Iran) as members of a Muslim terrorist cell.

For Season Eight, the writers invented a fictitious-but-clearly-meant-to-be-Iran Middle Eastern country and cast as its president the Indian actor Anil Kapoor (a Bollywood star who played the TV host in Slumdog Millionaire).  The president’s family comprises a wife (Iranian-American Necar Zadegan), a daughter (Nazneen Contractor, a Canadian of Indian descent), and a brother (Akbar Kurtha, Indian); their associates are played by Mido Hamada (German-Egyptian) and T.J. Ramini (a half-Palestinian, half-caucasian Englishman).  I’m not suggesting that passport-checks should be required in Hollywood casting sessions, but none of these actors sound or look as if they hail from the same region, much less the same family.  The weirdest part is that Zadegan and Contractor, playing mother and daughter, are roughly the same age.  Are their looks supposed to be so “exotic” that we won’t notice?

Contractor (left) and Zadegan (right): Mother and daughter?

These days I sense that casting directors have a mandate for ethnic accuracy, both for the sake of creative credibility and because it means work for deserving non-white actors who might not have a whole lot of parts being written for them.  Maybe the producers of 24 are behind this curve just because they’re lazy.  But since strident us-vs-them rhetoric is so much a part of its DNA, 24 raises the suspicion that embodying the “them” in an ethnically imprecise or inaccurate form is a conscious political low-blow.  In other words, the jumble of accents and skin hues deliberately renders this phony Muslim nation (the “Islamic Republic of Kamistan,” or IRK, an acronym that turns any scene with a TV news crawl into a Mad Magazine panel) as an “other” as non-specific and cartoonized as Bush’s very 24-worthy axis of evil.

Or not: At one point Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, whose Canadian accent still pokes through at times; may we see Jack’s birth certificate?) passes himself off as a German arms buyer, an impersonation so threadbare that awkward expressions of skepticism and rebuttal are required.  Then there are the Russian co-conspirators, played by a German (Prochnow), a Canadian (Callum Keith Rennie), and an American (Doug Hutchison), all of whom attempt accents that are not at all credible.  Hutchison, in fact, makes such a laughably unconvincing Russian that I wonder if he prepared for the role by studying Harrison Ford’s performance in K-19.  This season lists a dialect coach near the end of the credit roll, and that poor fellow (Joel Goldes) had the hardest job of anyone.

In a bizarre turn, 24 almost becomes good in its final six or seven episodes, as it shaves off extraneous characters and returns to its original structure of a parallel focus on our head of state and his (now her) chief enforcer.  The show achieves what it never quite pulled off during the first two seasons: a compelling crisis of conscience for a “good” president dragged into the muck of realpolitik.  The writing is as generic as it has always been – assassination! conspiracy! betrayal!  split-screen video conference call! – but the wily stage star Cherry Jones somehow gives it Shakespearean weight.  The story arc compresses what would be months’ worth of real-world reversals into a few real-time TV hours, as President Taylor tumbles into a rabbit-hole of ethical compromises to save a tattered peace accord, until by the end she’s ready to order Bauer’s execution (the ultimate evil in the 24 world).

(As an aside, the cock-eyed casting I questioned earlier pays dividends here.  Zadegan, as the crypto-Iranian first lady, escalates to a major player in this arc, and holds her own against Jones in key scenes; she will be an important actress.)

Double standards for (coded) liberals and conservatives: Even as they plunge their holier-than-thou president into ethical ignominy, the writers of 24 permit Jack Bauer to have his moral cake and eat it too.  Jack insists that he’s after “justice, not revenge,” convincing no one, but guess what: they’re the same thing.  Forced to make massive sacrifices for the cause in previous seasons – his wife, his freedom – Bauer in Season Eight finds the greater good aligning propitiously with his own personal vendetta.  “You people are so stupid.  Why don’t you just leave us alone?” Jack whines as he eviscerates his girlfriend’s murderer, in a scene of hard R-worthy torture that somehow surpasses in repugnance every earlier Bauerian excursion into violence.  Once canonized as a self-loathing arbiter of brutality, Bauer now tortures out of self-pity.  Groping towards a different cliff-dive of conservatism, end-stage 24 positions Bauer as a Howard Roark figure, petulantly blowing up a government that has failed to meet his exacting standards.  In a season of ineffectual villainy, 24 posits Jack as the final villain.  After Roark, Jack is rendered as Raymond Shaw, tragic/pathetic assassin of The Manchurian Candidate; the series stages its last climax with cheap allusions to the John Frankenheimer film.

Even as it feints further than before in the direction of depicting Jack as a deranged avenger, 24’s final season still won’t commit to a position on whether Bauer’s methods (and by extension those of our “war on terror”) are justified.  (Compare that to the endgame of The Shield, which makes it absolutely impossible to condone the choices of its seductive anti-hero Vic Mackey.)  Now the hemming and hawing about whether Jack has gone over the edge is provided not by liberal wimps but by his own Girl Friday Chloe (the marvelous Mary-Lynn Rajskub) and an operative (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) who is conspicuously the just-takes-orders type that Jack used to be.  There’s also a sequence in which Jack shoots a defenseless and relatively sympathetic villain (the aforementioned CTU mole) in cold blood, and I commend the producers for not introducing any kind of hedge that allows us to justify this execution as lawful, or heroic.

But in the final hour 24 contrives artfully to right Bauer’s moral compass and reinstate his holy martyr status, and in the meantime I was bemused (or amused) by just how entitled the late-model Bauer has become.  Once a humble soldier serving at the pleasure of the president, Bauer now invokes his personal privilege left and right.  Count the times now that Jack threatens to supersede some bureaucrat’s authority by going directly to the president, like a third-grade hall monitor taking names for the teacher.  Tired of playing competence and then nobility, Sutherland shifts to impatience: by this point Jack knows he’s superhuman, and he can barely control himself around all these fucking mortals who don’t get it.  The writers and Sutherland seem to be only partially in control of Jack’s shift from righteous badass to malevolent asshole.  The moral crux of 24 is the shocking moment in which Jack chokes his best friend (Chloe) into unconsciousness.  There’s no crossing back over that line, but I’m pretty sure – since there’s an expository backflip later on about how that act of betrayal was really for Chloe’s own good – that the show doesn’t grasp that.

When I wrote about 24 two years ago, I thought its politics were purely opportunistic and that cultural critics who tried to parse them were on a fool’s errand.  Now I guess I’ve taken the bait and engaged with 24 on its own terms, at least to a point.  The show remains ideologically incoherent (and indefensible), but perhaps incoherent and indefensible on the same level as those mid-period John Ford westerns that cheerlead simultaneously for individualism (the loner anti-hero) and institutional authority (the tradition of the cavalry).  The minds behind 24 share Ford’s knee-jerk scorn for pacifism: in the final moments their Madame President renounces a peace treaty in so confrontational a gesture that a Season Nine might have been set after the apocalypse.  (Mad Jack!)  Even though it’s altogether dumb compared to The West Wing or The Wire, 24 will probably retain its zeitgeist status in the history books.  Distorted, confused, insane, it reflects who we were during the era between September 11 and the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Its repugnance is its legacy.

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